Bipartisanship: can it be restored?

August 10, 1993

President Clinton's call in West Virginia yesterday for a bipartisan effort to reform health care, liberalize trade with Mexico, instill discipline in the welfare program and enact further cuts in federal spending was a needed follow-on to his narrow victory in last week's budget battle on Capitol Hill. He must have Republican support -- plenty of it -- to obtain passage of his overall agenda.

Not to be taken literally was the president's assertion that "12 years of partisan gridlock" had been reversed. Instead, party-line voting in Congress was more intense than at any time during the Reagan-Bush era. Clinton Democrats let it be known soon after Inauguration Day that they did not feel a need for GOP votes. Republicans responded by standing rock-solid against the administration's plan to raise taxes by $243 billion over five years as part of a $496 billion cutback in the growth of deficit financing. Only one more Democratic defection, in either chamber, would have defeated the president on his core program.

That is not only too close a margin for effective use of a president's authority; it also sends a message of political divisiveness to a public sick of political games. While Democrats, as a group, could show remarkable cohesiveness in socking it to the rich and slashing defense expenditures -- the two major deficit reduction features of the final legislation -- the president's party is anything but united on the other items of the Clinton agenda.

Take the North American Free Trade Agreement. This is a proposal opposed by two key Democratic constituencies: organized labor and environmentalists. The pact was drafted not by the Clinton administration but by the Bush administration. To get the support of more than 100 GOP members in the House, Mr. Clinton may have to appeal to their sense of loyalty to his 1992 campaign rival.

Since the president also will need Republican votes on an issue that is strictly his own, health care financing reform, the wisdom of partisan chutzpah early in his administration has to be questioned. Not that Republicans are off the hook. By voting en bloc against the White House, they appeared wholly obstructionist and without input on shaping the taxes and federal expenditures that are at the heart of governance. True, the economy may slow short-term to GOP advantage as taxes rise and defense spending slows. But the president can use his bully pulpit to hammer home the theme that he inherited a fiscal calamity.

To the extent that bipartisanship can be restored, it will be a boon for the country. But with 1994 congressional elections on the far horizon, it would be folly to count on it short of some real as opposed to rhetorical gestures by the president.

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